Over the years, the cannabis movement has enjoyed champions across culture, politics, art and business. And while the contributions of each has helped legalize and normalize marijuana use, live music—and particularly the jam-band scene spearheaded by the Grateful Dead—holds a special place in many hearts, especially for those first exposed to this magical plant at concerts.
With the festival culture exploding in recent years, the communal nature of enjoying cannabis with like-minded people in a safe and welcoming environment has become somewhat commonplace today, but it’s important to remember that this has become the norm because of the Grateful Dead. Before it was normal to smoke joints or hit pipes out in the open, and before festivals were happening every weekend all summer long, the Dead were blazing that trail. And now the community built by the legendary Bay Area band is being carried on by Dead & Company, which unites former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart with guitarist John Mayer, bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti.
The Grateful Dead formed in Palo Alto, CA, in 1965, ultimately evolving out of several bands that had played throughout San Francisco in the early 1960s, including Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions and the Warlocks. Originally comprising Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann, the band is celebrated for its diverse musical styles—they were just as comfortable playing folksy American standards and bluegrass as they were playing psychedelic rock—but they are best known for their epic, marathon live performances and improvisational jams.
These live performances, sometimes accompanied by acid tests in the early days, soon drew a loyal fan base. Those that came out to the live shows and began following the Dead around on tour dates became known as Deadheads.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what a Dead tour was like—and why fans of the group felt they couldn’t miss a date—but cannabis was a big part of the scene. At a time when propaganda about pot far outweighed common sense, the Dead provided an occasion and location to bring like-minded people together. As a result, a community developed and people introduced each other to the best strains from their respective regions. As a result, incredible genetics were spread throughout the world on Dead tours. In fact, Dead tour is responsible for the development of the legendary strain Chem Dog. It even helped spread the code 420, which was created by fellow Bay Area natives the Waldos.
As Dead & Company, the group currently carrying the Grateful Dead mantle, prepared for a nationwide tour (more info at deadandcompany.com), we wanted to take a look back at the band that started it all to better understand the role cannabis played in fueling a musical revolution. We spoke with former Grateful Dead and current Dead & Company drummers/percussionists Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart (who joined the Dead in 1967) to discuss cannabis, the evolution of lot culture and some of their memories from along the way.
According to Mickey Hart, the band hit a turning point with their cannabis consumption around 1969. Before that, Hart says, “It was Mexican weed, you know, in bricks with lots of seeds and lots of stems and all that. It was just horrible.” But that changed before a gig in New York. Hart tells us that Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner dropped by with “this thing called sinsemilla, and it was the first seedless pot that we had ever encountered… So that was a moment in Grateful Dead pot history.”
Bill Kreutzmann agrees: “Pretty much it was Mexican weed that came up in the old days, the Haight-Ashbury days.” But he remembers a kilo of Acapulco Gold arriving at 710 Ashbury Street, the band’s headquarters. “We laid on the second floor upstairs, just all on our backs, and had a big hookah in the middle of the floor, and we surrounded it and proceeded to smoke that whole kilo… You couldn’t tell the difference from the fog in San Francisco and the fog in our house,” he recalls.
The next step in the band’s expanding cannabis repertoire was experiencing a heavy indica strain for the first time. Hart says, “[We were] somewhere in the South… I can’t remember what state it was, but I remember these guys came to me and they said they had this strain… that would just knock out the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead wouldn’t be able to play or something if they smoked it. And so I said, ‘Oh, really? Okay. You come and give me some of that.’ And we smoked it, and it was around a fire pit. It was a hot summer night, and we had a show that night, and we smoked it. It was amazing. Then we started to get up, and we couldn’t get up. I mean, the legs weren’t responding and everything. We just sat there for a long time while everybody was screaming for us to get to the show… I’m not sure what it was. It was certainly dark, indica stuff. That was another interesting point in Grateful Dead history.”
Hart says he keeps up on the strains coming out of the lot scene on tour, and in fact he remembers how the most famous tour strain came to be. “It’s about a guy named Chemdog at Deer Creek in Shakedown Street. This guy, he smoked the best weed he ever smoked, and in the pot were some seeds. So Chemdog, he made this hybrid with this incredible, visionary energy,” Hart explains. “That’s my favorite weed. That’s my favorite smoke.”
As Chemdog remembers it, “I was 16 when I went to my first show. It was in July 1989 in Foxboro, MA. I never saw anything like the lots. It was lots of people vending clothes, crystals, food, drugs and more. It was a wild scene, and lots of pot was being smoked… I feel the Grateful Dead brought people together from all parts of the world. It was like Facebook or Instagram back in the day. People brought their goods from their own states to sell or trade, and honestly it brought people together. So after my first show, I would go to the lots and poke around and try to score some good bud.
“In July of 1991,” he continues, “I graduated high school and saved my money and did the whole summer tour—and thank God I did or we wouldn’t be having this talk right now. On July 6, I went to score some bud for tour and was walking on Shakedown and heard two guys [Joe Brand and P-Bud] say, ‘Kind bud.’ I got a quarter for $125. I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is the best weed I ever smelled or smoked in my life.’ I ended up getting their phone number and kept in touch. My bag lasted the whole tour, even smoking a bowl a day. I got home and called them the next week after the tour ended, and we agreed on getting more of that bud. I paid $500 bucks and ended up with an ounce of Chem weed, or Dog Bud as people called it back then, and I noticed I had 13 seeds in my bag. It was time to grow. I didn’t care about the laws and thought, ‘Fuck it, this stuff is worth it.’ And that’s how the Chem Dog a.k.a. Chem 91 a.k.a. Skunk VA cut was born, and that is all because the Grateful Dead brought us together.”
Kreutzmann doesn’t pay as much attention to the lot scene as Hart, but he recognizes that concentrates are prevalent on the Dead & Company tour. “I think it’s the main thing happening in the world of weed,” he says. “I think that’s just the natural way to go to make stuff stronger. I like that stuff. But I don’t know. I’m not into it that much. I’m kind of like the old guy who likes to have just a nice, big, beautiful bud.”
There’s long been a sense of cannabis community in the jam-band scene. As Chemdog noted, the Dead brought people together. And that sense of community lives on with Dead & Company. Hart is proud of the safe haven for cannabis use the band helped create on tour. “We provided a safe place for people to come and ritualize, I guess,” he says. “I mean, you know, we need rituals, and one of the great rituals are our concerts. You know, people feel safe there. We provide a very safe atmosphere, as safe as we can unless you buy from a narc or something, you know?”
As the band’s status grew, Hart explains that they were able to use their power to protect concertgoers. “We’ve always taken that real seriously with the local police, with the security,” he says. “You know, back then it was really a hard sell, but we were the first ones to really sell it, like, ‘You can’t bust our people or else we will not come back to your city and you will not get an influx of a million dollars. You will get nothing if you bust our beloved fans.’”
Still, when it comes to the communal experience, Hart understands there’s nothing new under the sun. “We didn’t invent this,” he says. “It happened in the ancient world, so this is kind of the rise of the ancient revelries, you know, the ancient rituals in a Grateful Dead concert or a Phish concert, or any place where you would be safe smoking.”
Originally published in the August, 2019 issue of High Times magazine. Subscribe right here.